The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, New York
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Executed only months before his unexpected death while recovering from surgery on 22 February 1987, these three superb paintings by Andy Warhol belong to his 1986 series of 'Self-Portraits', recognised as his last great gesture and a resurrection of his 1960s artistic brilliance. For three decades, Warhol's work charted the rise of America from post-war conservative repression to capitalist superpower, in turn prophetically pre-empting the celebrity and brand obsessed society of today. The progenitor of Pop and the arbiter of Consumerism, Warhol became more famous than many of the celebrities he depicted and thus the 'Self-Portraits' that span his career chart the rise of a brand in its own right. They were the lifeblood of his work, and of all the self-portraits he made, it is the 1966 and 1986 series that are most revered. As Georg Frei and Neil Printz have said, "Warhol's 1966 Self-Portrait is probably the most well-known of the three versions he produced during the 1960s and, with his Self-Portrait of 1986, one of the most representative and iconic images of the artist" (Georg Frei and Neil Printz, Eds., The Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 2B, Paintings and Sculptures 1964-1969, London and New York 2004, p. 227).
In reflective metallic silver, acid citron yellow and brilliant emerald green, these three works crystallise the conjunction of celebrity subject matter and personal introspection, resulting in an ironic layering of subject and author. More than any artist before him, Warhol's image, identity and constructed public persona were inextricably bound to his art, and he returned to the genre of self-portraiture regularly throughout his career, using his own appearance to record the changing times of his life. Renowned for his candid depictions of stage and screen luminaries, Warhol was drawn to his subjects by the potent combination of celebrity, vulnerability and death. With his screen-printing process he had depicted 'Marilyn', 'Elvis' and 'Liz' with the same dispassionate technique employed in the seminal 'Campbell's Soup Can' paintings, each subject being packaged and commodified as a marketable icon. In his last 'Self-Portraits', epitomised by this group of three, the ever insightful artist presents himself as a product to be consumed by the commodity culture which he himself had helped to define. Warhol thereby tackles the challenge of self-depiction with an intense theatricality, presenting himself both as man and as cultural phenomenon.
While the 'Self-Portraits' of the 1960s were based on photo-mat strips of photographs, in the 1986 series Warhol uses a Polaroid photograph as his source image, a technique which he had refined in his portraiture throughout the 1970s. By now Warhol had harnessed and honed to perfection the silkscreen process, which he had introduced to art practice in the early 1960s. While the 1966 self-portraits are characterised by often rough printing and serendipitous outcomes, here the images are of more controlled clarity, resounding in our memory even when we cease to look at them. Unlike his works from the 1970s which had thick, brushy acrylic surfaces, here Warhol returns to the ineluctable flatness of the picture plane. If Warhol's technical credo was the magnetism of the mechanically-engineered surface, here it reaches its apogee in the slick, black lamina of ink, which lends the three works a surface unity evocative of the impeccable flatness of Minimalism.
The silk-screens capture each contour of Warhol's features, from his sunken cheeks, the slight jowls around his pursed lip to his penetrating stare. Wearing one of his many elaborate wigs and a black turtle-neck sweater covering his neck, Warhol makes his body disappear entirely so that his isolated visage hovers in space like the severed Head of the Medusa. This stark isolation enhances the fact that Warhol is offering up his distinctive face for our sharp scrutiny.
Conventionally, self-portraits reveal the private side of a public profession, with the canon from Rembrandt to Van Gogh and Bacon including intimate and often brutally honest explorations of the self. Although he is wearing his trademark wig, in these present works Warhol stares directly out of the canvas with unprecedented directness. For the first and only time, in the 1986 'Self-Portraits' the shy, elusive Warhol, who preferred to hide behind an elaborate public persona, projects the most candid portrayal of himself. In doing so, the quintessential flaneur of his age himself becomes the focus of our attention and his 1967 statement, somewhat disingenuous at the time, finally comes true: "If you want to know about Andy Warhol, then just look at the surface of my pictures, my movies and me and there I am; there's nothing in between" (the artist cited in: Gretchen Berg, 'Andy: My True Story' in: Los Angeles Free Press, 17 March 1967, p. 3).
Throughout his life Warhol had an obsessive preoccupation with sudden death, which had been openly reflected in this work since the often gruesome 'Death and Disaster' and 'Electric Chair' series. Here, the mysterious image of the artist's gaunt features reflects this lifelong fascination with the transience of life, and seems to convey an awareness of his own impending death. Like Rembrandt's final self-portrait of 1669 in the National Gallery, London, there is a sense that the artist is depicting himself as if on the brink of eternity. As John Caldwell noted of this final series, "The new painting, coming as it does twenty years after the last great self-portraits in the sixties, has by contrast with them a strange sense of absoluteness...the sense that we are being given a rare chance to witness the aging of an icon" (Anon., 'A New Andy Warhol at the Carnegie' in: Carnegie Magazine, Pittsburgh, January - February 1987, p. 9).
By repeating his self-representation, Three Self-Portraits are collectively a fractured self-image where unity only exists through multiplicity. This multiplicity in turn raises fundamental questions about the genre of self-portraiture itself: after all, how can all the complexities of an individual's psycho-emotional landscape be reduced to a single image? The silver, yellow and green Three Self-Portraits are archetypal of a series that reinvents the genre's ideal of intimate self expression and harnesses the full power of Warhol's screen-print technique to deliver the artist's last testament to representation of his self and his epic Pop Art history.
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